The 12 Best Straight-to-Streaming Films and Specials of 2021
Medieval fantasies, powerful documentaries, Jamie Dornan singing about seagulls — this year’s best streaming flicks just kept on delivering.
When the term 'direct-to-video' was uttered in decades gone by, it was rarely used in a positive way. 'Direct-to-DVD' wasn't either, when the switch from VHS to discs hit — but shaking up the idea that a film that skips cinemas can't also be exceptional is one of the many consequences of the streaming era.
Every week — every day, it sometimes seems — brand new movies join the seemingly endless array of streaming platforms. That's been especially handy during 2021, which saw us all spend more time at home than usual (yes, again), and also delivered plenty of straight-to-streaming highlights.
Indeed, some of this year's finest movies didn't flicker across the silver screen. Some were meant to, others were never destined to, but they're all exceptional either way. Here are the 12 best films that should've made their way to your streaming queue in 2021 — and if you haven't watched them yet, you can remedy that at the click of a few buttons.
THE GREEN KNIGHT
Mesmerising and magnetic from its first moments till its last, The Green Knight is a moving musing on destiny, pride, virtue, choice, myths and sacrifice, all wrapped in a sublime spectacle. The medieval fantasy hums with haunting beauty and potency as it tells of Arthurian figure Gawain (Dev Patel, The Personal History of David Copperfield), nephew to the King (Sean Harris, Mission: Impossible — Fallout), and the only man who accepts a bold challenge when the eponymous figure (Ralph Ineson, Gunpowder Milkshake) — a mystical part-tree, part-knight — demands a duel one Christmas. The catch: whichever blows the eager-to-prove-himself Gawain inflicts on this towering interloper, he'll receive back in a year's time. So, when this initial altercation ends in a beheading (and with the Green Knight scooping up his noggin and riding off), Gawain faces a grim future.
Twelve months later, that bargain inspires a quest, which The Green Knight treats as both a nightmare and a dream. There's an ethereal look and feel to every inch of this stunning movie, where the greenery is verdant, and the bloodshed and battlefield of skeletons just as prominent. Playing a man yearning for glory yet faced with life's stark realities, Patel is in career-best form — and the latter can also be said of writer/director/editor David Lowery. Every film he makes has proven a gem, from Ain't The Bodies Saints and Pete's Dragon to A Ghost Story and The Old Man and The Gun; however, The Green Knight is a startling and riveting feast of a feature that's as as contemplative as it is visionary.
The Green Knight is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND
Excellent filmmakers helming exceptional documentaries about music icons just might be 2021's best movie trend. It isn't new — see: Martin Scorsese's filmography as just one example — but any year that delivers both Edgar Wright's The Sparks Brothers and Todd Haynes' The Velvet Underground is a great year indeed. Both docos are made by clear fans of the bands they celebrate. Both films find creative and engaging ways to approach a tried-and-tested on-screen formula, too. And, both movies will make fans out of newcomers, all while delighting existing devotees. They each have killer soundtracks as well, obviously. They're each tailored to suit their subjects, rather than leaning on the standard music bio-doc template. As a result, they each prove the kind of rich, in-depth and electrifying features that only these two directors could've made.
With The Velvet Underground and Haynes, none of this comes as a surprise. As well as the astonishing Carol and the just-as-devastating Dark Waters, he has experimental short Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, glam-rock portrait Velvet Goldmine and the Bob Dylan-focused I'm Not There on his resume, after all. Here, he makes two perceptive choices: splitting his screen Andy Warhol-style to show both archival materials and new interviews simultaneously, and avoiding the allure of giving the late, great Lou Reed all his attention. The result is an inventive, impassioned and wide-ranging doco that charts the band's story and impact; captures the time, place and attitudes that gave rise to them; and proves as dazzling as The Velvet Underground themselves.
The Velvet Underground is available to stream via Apple TV+.
For filmmaker Robert Greene, it started with a press conference, where six sexually abused men sought justice — and publicly so — for the horrors they endured at the hands of the Catholic Church. After reaching out to their lawyer Rebecca Randles, and also bringing drama therapist Monica Phinney onboard, Procession started to take shape — a film that tells their stories like no other documentary would've. Anyone who's seen Greene's also exceptional Kate Plays Christine and Bisbee '17 will know that he sifts through trauma via re-enactments, an approach used to interrogate dark incidents and abhorrent moments. Here, it's deployed as a healing technique, too. To watch Tom Viviano, Joe Eldred, Ed Gavagan, Michael Sandridge, Dan Laurine and Mike Foreman participate in Procession is to watch them not just grapple with what was done to them, but to try to undercut its power.
Talking-head interviews still litter the documentary, but Procession is far more interested in the short films that Viviano, Eldred, Gavagan, Sandridge, Laurine and Foreman conceive and make — starring child actor Terrick Trobough as all of them — based on their own experiences. Greene captures the behind-the-scenes process, and also presents the finished product, both of which trawl through memories that none of his subjects will ever forget. Unsurprisingly, this isn't an easy movie to watch. It's essential and unforgettable viewing, though, examining heartbreakingly awful acts, the men who've spent a lifetime trying to cope, the cathartic nature of art and the resilience needed to soldier on.
Procession is available to stream via Netflix.
ONE NIGHT IN MIAMI
Pondering the conversations that might've occurred between four pivotal historical figures on one very real evening they spent in each other's company, One Night in Miami boasts the kind of talk-heavy concept that'd obviously work well on the stage. That's where it first began back in 2013 — but adapting theatre pieces for the cinema doesn't always end in success, especially when they primarily involve large swathes of dialogue exchanged in one setting. If Beale Street Could Talk Oscar-winner and Watchmen Emmy-winner Regina King doesn't make a single wrong move here, however. The actor's feature directorial debut proves a film not only of exceptional power and feeling, but of abundant texture and detail as well. It's a movie about people and ideas, including the role the former can play in both bolstering and counteracting the latter, and the Florida-set picture takes as much care with its quartet of protagonists as it does with the matters of race, politics and oppression they talk about.
Given the folks involved on-screen, there's clearly much to discuss. The film takes place on February 25, 1964, which has become immortalised in history as the night that Cassius Clay (Eli Goree, Riverdale) won his first title fight. Before and after the bout, the future Muhammad Ali hangs out with his equally important pals — activist Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir, High Fidelity), footballer Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge, The Invisible Man) and musician Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr, Hamilton) — with this equally meticulous and moving Oscar-nominee ficitionalising their time together.
One Night in Miami is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
NO SUDDEN MOVE
Up until late August, No Sudden Move couldn't have sat on this list. The latest film from prolific director Steven Soderbergh (Unsane), it was scheduled to release in Australian cinemas; however, then lengthy lockdowns hit Sydney and Melbourne, and its theatrical run was sadly canned across the country. This crime thriller would've looked dazzling on a big screen, and for a plethora of reasons. Soderbergh is no stranger to helming capers — he has Ocean's Eleven, Ocean's Twelve and Ocean's Thirteen on his jam-packed resume, plus both Out of Sight and Logan Lucky — and No Sudden Move is as energetic as the rest of his heist fare. Here, he also revels in period details, with this Ed Solomon (Bill & Ted Face the Music)-scripted tale unfurling in the 1950s. As he's known to do, Soderbergh both shot and edited the movie himself, too, and that exceptional craftsmanship is another of this playful neo-noir's many delights.
Spinning an engaging story steeped in Detroit's crime scene, No Sudden Move has something to say as well. Don Cheadle (Space Jam: A New Legacy) in is career-best form as Curt Goynes, who gets out of prison, then gets enlisted for a job by a middleman known as Jones (Brendan Fraser, Trust). That gig? With two colleagues (The French Dispatch's Benicio Del Toro and Succession's Kieran Culkin), he's tasked with babysitting the Wertz family (Archenemy's Amy Seimetz, A Quiet Place Part II's Noah Jupe and debutant Lucy Holt), all so the Wertz patriarch (David Harbour, Black Widow) can steal a document from his work. There's no shortage of plot — No Sudden Move keeps twisting from there — but capitalism's worst consequences also bubble prominently underneath. Soderbergh and Solomon savvily tease out the details, though, keeping their audience guessing as much as their characters.
BO BURNHAM: INSIDE
Watching Bo Burnham: Inside, a stunning fact becomes evident — a life-changing realisation, really. During a period when most people tried to make sourdough, pieced together jigsaws and spent too much time on Zoom, Bo Burnham created a comedy masterpiece. How does he ever top a special this raw, insightful, funny, clever and of the moment? How did he make it to begin with? How does anyone ever manage to capture every emotion that we've all felt about lockdowns — and about the world's general chaos, spending too much time on the internet, capitalism's exploitation and just the general hellscape that is our modern lives, too — in one 90-minute musical-comedy whirlwind?
Filmed in one room of his house over several months (and with the growth of his hair and beard helping to mark the time), Inside unfurls via songs about being stuck indoors, video chats, today's performative society, sexting, ageing and mental health. Burnham sings and acts, and also wrote, directed, shot, edited and produced the whole thing, and there's not a moment, image or line that goes to waste. Being trapped in that room with the Promising Young Woman star and Eighth Grade filmmaker, and therefore being stuck inside the closest thing he can find to manifesting his mind outside his skull, becomes the best kind of rollercoaster ride. Just try getting Burnham's tunes out of your head afterwards, too, because this is an oh-so-relatable and insightful special that lingers. It's also the best thing that's been made about this pandemic yet, hands down.
Bo Burnham: Inside is available to stream via Netflix.
BARB AND STAR GO TO VISTA DEL MAR
Throughout 2021, on screens big and small, few films have been as fun as Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar. Nothing has been as ridiculously, hilariously, gleefully silly, either — as you'd expect of a movie about a titular twosome who obsess over culottes, and where Jamie Dornan (Synchronic) kicks sand on the beach while singing a prayer to seagulls. A talking crab features, too, as do dance remixes of Celine Dion tunes, because this is the delightfully entertaining comedy that has it all. The setup: middle-aged Soft Rock residents Barb (Annie Mumolo, Queenpins) and Star (Kristen Wiig, Wonder Woman 1984) head to Florida for a holiday, despite their apprehension to break up their routine, while nervous, lovesick henchman Edgar Pagét (Dornan) also makes the same trip, but to help nefarious villain Sharon Fisherman (also Wiig) with her plan to kill everyone.
Wiig and Mumolo also wrote Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar, as they did Bridesmaids. This time, though, they've piled in enough glorious absurdity to fill several beaches. From its throwaway gags to its big musical numbers — and including its character details — there's nothing too goofy for this infectious frolic. Sometimes the film is a Romy and Michele's High School Reunion-style ode to female friendship, sometimes it's a kooky world-domination comedy, and it's also a fish-out-of-water satire and a goofy holiday flick as well. It wouldn't work quite as well if its cast weren't so committed to their parts, and to the offbeat sense of humour — and if director Josh Greenbaum (New Girl) didn't ensure that every element of the movie goes all-in on every single joke.
"This could be the new normal," a snippet from a news report comments early in Burning. The reason for the statement: Black Summer, the Australian bushfire season of 2019–20 that decimated large swathes of the country, sent smoke floating around the world and attracted international media attention. Australians don't need a documentary to confirm how horrific the situation was, and this is now the second in months — after the gripping first-person accounts in A Fire Inside — but this powerful film from Chasing Asylum's Eva Orner also lays bare all the factors that coalesced in the tragic events of just two years ago. Accordingly, this is a doco about inaction, government indifference to the point of failure, and the valuing of fossil fuels over their destruction of the environment. It's a movie about climate change as well, clearly, because any film telling this tale has to be.
Orner, an Oscar-winner for producing 2007's Taxi to the Dark Side and an Emmy-winner for 2016's Out of Iraq, takes a three-pronged approach: providing context to the bushfires, including charting the Australian government's choices before and after; amassing expert and experienced testimonies, spanning activists and those on the ground alike; and bearing witness. Facts — such as the three billion animals killed — sit side by side with personal recollections and devastating images. The latter includes not only the fires and their ashy aftermath, but political arguing and Scott Morrison's Hawaiian holiday; all hit like a punch to the gut. The result is urgent, important and stunning — and absolutely essential viewing.
Burning is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
I CARE A LOT
She didn't end up with an Oscar for her efforts, but Rosamund Pike's Golden Globe win for I Care a Lot was thoroughly well-deserved. The Radioactive and Gone Girl star is stellar in a tricky part in a thorny film — because this dark comic-thriller isn't here to play nice. Pike plays Marla Grayson, a legal guardian to as many elderly Americans as she can convince the courts to send her way. She's more interested in the cash that comes with the job, however, rather than actually looking after her charges. Indeed, with her girlfriend and business partner Fran (Eiza González, Bloodshot), plus an unscrupulous doctor on her payroll, she specifically targets wealthy senior citizens with no family, gets them committed to her care, packs them off to retirement facilities and plunders their bank accounts.
Then one such ploy catches the attention of gangster Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage, Game of Thrones), who dispatches his minions to nudge Marla in a different direction. She isn't willing to acquiesce, though, sparking both a game of cat and mouse and a showdown. Dinklage makes the most of his role, too, but I Care a Lot is always the icy Pike's movie. Well, hers and writer/director J Blakeson's (The Disappearance of Alice Creed), with the latter crafting a takedown of capitalism that's savagely blunt but also blisteringly entertaining.
I Care a Lot is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
When CODA screened at the Sundance Film Festival back in January, it made history. Film distributors always clamour to snap up the event's big hits, and this four-time award-winner — which received the fest's US Grand Jury Prize, US Dramatic Audience Award, a Special Jury Ensemble Cast Award and Best Director — was picked up by Apple TV+ for US$25 million. Even though the sophomore feature from writer/director Sian Heder (Tallulah) remakes 2014 French hit La Famille Bélier, that's still a significant amount of money; however, thanks to its warmth, engaging performances and a welcome lack of cheesiness, it's easy to see why the streaming platform opened its wallet.
Fans of the earlier movie will recognise the storyline, which sees 17-year-old Ruby Rossi (Emilia Jones, Locke & Key) struggle to balance her family commitments with her dreams of attending music school. She's a talented singer, but she's only just discovered just how skilled she is because she's also the child of deaf adults (hence the film's title). At home, she also plays a key part in keeping the family's fishing business afloat, including by spending mornings before class out on the trawler wither her dad Frank (Troy Kotsur, No Ordinary Hero: The SuperDeafy Movie) and older brother Leo (Daniel Durant, Switched at Birth). Heder helms this still sweet and moving feature with a distinct lack of over-exaggeration, which plagued its predecessor. The fact that Kotsur, Durant and Marlee Matlin (Entangled), the latter as the Rossi matriarch, are all actors who are deaf playing characters who are deaf really couldn't be more important. Their portrayals are naturalistic and lived-in, as is much about this rousing but gentle crowd-pleaser — including tomboy Ruby's blossoming romance with fellow wannabe musician Miles (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Sing Street).
CODA is available to stream via Apple TV+.
THE ELECTRICAL LIFE OF LOUIS WAIN
If there's a real-life figure that needs to be brought to the screen, call Benedict Cumberbatch. He's done just that in The Imitation Game, The Current War and The Courier, and also in everything from The Other Boleyn Girl and Creation to 12 Years a Slave and The Fifth Estate as well. The Electrical Life of Louis Wain sees the British actor add another such role to his resume; however, while it steps through its eponymous artist's life and career, this biopic instantly stands out from the rest of the pack. The key: a fabulous decision by director Will Sharpe (Flowers) to style this poignant and lively film after its subject and his work. When he came to fame in the late 19th century, Wain was known for his surreal cat paintings, after all — and while this is a movie that also tracks his sorrows, as well as his struggles with his mental health, it does so with a winning mix of energy and sincerity.
Indeed, it'll come as no surprise that The Electrical Life of Louis Wain was shot by Erik Wilson, the same cinematographer who added such a whimsical look to both Paddington and Paddington 2. Animals abound amidst these entrancing visuals, too, but none of the cats that Wain (Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog) becomes obsessed with eat marmalade. That feline fixation stems from a frowned-upon romance with Emily Richardson (Claire Foy, The Girl in the Spider's Web), the governess to his younger sisters — and it, just like Richardson, changes his life. Playing an eccentric artist who firmly took his own route, and was also just as fascinated with electricity as adorable mousers, Cumberbatch finds both the enchanting and the melancholy sides to Wain, while the rest of the stellar cast even includes Olivia Colman (The Lost Daughter) on narration duties, plus Richard Ayoade, Taika Waititi and Nick Cave in cameos.
The Electrical Life of Louis Wain is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
Ask any style guru for their opinion on denim, and they'll all likely give the same answer. Everyone needs a pair of killer jeans, after all — the type that fit perfectly, flatter every inch of your lower half, and that you just don't want to ever take off. In Slaxx, CCC is the store aiming to make all of the above happen. Already priding itself on its eco-friendly, sustainable, sweatshop-free threads, the chain is set to launch a new range of denim that moulds to the wearer's body, with the company's buzzword-spouting CEO (Stephen Bogaert, IT: Chapter Two) certain that they'll change the fashion industry. On the night before the jeans hit the shelves, employees at one store are tasked with making sure everything goes smoothly; however, as new hire Libby (Romane Denis, My Salinger Year), apathetic veteran employee Shruti (Sehar Bhojani, Sex & Ethnicity) and their over-eager boss Craig (Brett Donahue, Private Eyes) soon learn, these are killer jeans in a very literal sense.
Quickly, the ravenous pants start stalking and slaying their way through the store. It's a concept that'd do Rubber's Quentin Dupieux proud and, in the hands of Canadian filmmaker Elza Kephart (Go in the Wilderness), the results are highly entertaining. Slaxx wears its equally silly and savage attitude like a second skin, smartly skewers consumerism and retail trends, and possesses stellar special effects that bring its denim to life — and, although never subtle (including in its performances), it's exactly as fun as a film about killer jeans should be.
Slaxx is available to stream via Shudder.
Looking for more viewing highlights? You can also check out our list of film and TV streaming recommendations, which is updated monthly. Plus, we picked ten standout new straight-to-streaming movies and specials in the middle of the year, too.
Published on December 21, 2021 by Sarah Ward